“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
In celebration of the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain this September, we’re focusing our attention on the Metal Gear Solid series by looking back on the series’ second installment, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, originally released for PS2 in 2001. We’ll be chronicling the main installments of the series periodically catching up to The Phantom Pain‘s release in September.
For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can check out our impressions of the original Metal Gear Solid here, while reading below to see where Snake’s journey takes him in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty:
Coming off the heels of the revolutionary Metal Gear Solid is no easy task. When players were introduced to Solid Snake’s mission on Shadow Moses Island, they experienced some of the Metal Gear Solid series’ most iconic moments: first arriving on Shadow Moses Island, the fight against Psycho Mantis, Ocelot’s torture, and more. Following up a classic is intimidating, which lead into the almost unequaled levels of hype for it sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
As a first-timer coming to the Metal Gear Solid series in preparation for this fall’s The Phantom Pain, I missed the boat the first time around on Sons of Liberty when it first released for the PS2 in 2001, though my memories of it from friends still resonate well in my memory (other than those of being a dorky middle schooler at the time). After hearing of some of the game’s more iconic moments, especially in comparison to the original Metal Gear Solid, I dove in knowing a little of what to expect, though in typical Kojima fashion, Metal Gear Solid 2 still left me with far more surprises than what I was expecting.
(Trailer courtesy of “MGSmainthemeBACK” on YouTube.)
Taking place a few years after the events of Metal Gear Solid, the opening moments follow players once again taking up the mantle of Solid Snake while investigating a Marine Corps. tanker that is housing what appears to be a new Metal Gear prototype. Through the hour or two of Snake’s introduction in the “Tanker” and a confrontation with Marine Colonel Gurlukovich, his daughter Olga, and Snake’s old nemesis Revolver Ocelot, Sons of Liberty opens up to more unexpected territory with the game’s infamous twist, with focus shifting to the new FOXHOUND recruit, Raiden, as the playable protagonist for the rest of the game.
While I had known ahead of time of the big twist – can’t say it’s easy to keep something like that spoiler-free after 14 years – its inclusion in the game still drove my curiosity while playing through. Of what I remember during the game’s original release, all of a sudden swapping out the legendary Solid Snake for an unknown, white-haired rookie was certainly controversial to fans of Metal Gear Solid. In hindsight however, Raiden’s inclusion in the game marks a bold storytelling move that certainly echoes some of the moments that made the original such a revered classic, but also moves the story into wildly different places to explore and a new perspective (literally) on the series’ protagonist.
From there on, players assume the role of Raiden in the “Plant” chapters that make up the rest of the game, leading Raiden to investigate the newly-constructed Big Shell facility as the titular Sons of Liberty terrorist group holds the US President hostage and threatens the facility’s destruction. Under the watch of the rogue anti-terrorism unit Dead Cell, Raiden has his work more than cut out for him against the likes of its members, including the psychic shield-bearing Fortune and the superpowered Vamp.
The opening moments of Metal Gear Solid 2 certainly echo those of Metal Gear Solid, and for good reason: with the eventual reveal of SEAL member Snake Pliskin as the one-and-only Solid Snake, the relationship between Snake and Raiden takes on an almost “mentor”-like quality that runs throughout the game. Even as Raiden touts his advanced tactical skills and VR training (a point which Snake hilariously replies is “better than nothing”), this marks Raiden’s first outing on a real mission, a quality that makes the title approachable to first-timers to the series but also valuable to returning vets.
Of all the previous Metal Gear Solid titles, Sons of Liberty is often the one I find to be addressed the most critically when speaking to friends or Metal Gear enthusiasts – and it’s not that surprising. Metal Gear Solid 2‘s legacy still ranks as one of the PS2’s most acclaimed titles, with over 7 million copies sold worldwide and still standing at a 96 rating on Metacritic.
Releasing roughly three years after the first game, Metal Gear Solid 2 in all ways shows the power of sequels to improve and enhance a promising gameplay experience, especially in contrast to the current climate of iterative sequels that provide only minimal enhancements to their predecessors. In the shift from the PSone to PS2, Metal Gear Solid 2 boasted new enhancements to the game’s classic stealth setup, where sneaking around and finding ways to divert an enemy’s attention was often critical to a mission’s success rather than straight shoot ’em-ups.
The controls of previous Metal Gear Solid titles have always been one of my main sticking points against the series – not necessarily due to them being bad per se, but in the obvious case of time working against them as newer and better control schemes have come along. Surely if I had the choice, I would take a Metal Gear Solid title over something like classic Resident Evils, though that’s not to say I didn’t have my difficulties with some of the controls while playing the original Metal Gear Solid. I still find shifting between standing/crouching/prone positions a bit clunky and the animations taking exceedingly long times (especially in the face of approaching enemies): however, some of the adjustments made in Metal Gear Solid 2 eased that transition a bit, especially with the introduction of the first-person view and an improved cover system.
Where playing Metal Gear Solid‘s combat encounters (and especially its boss fights) felt sometimes to me like a “shoot-and-pray” approach hoping that I would hit someone, the introduction of the first-person mode to Sons of Liberty felt refreshing, providing a more accurate approach to taking out enemies or utilizing the environment for stealth purposes, such as shooting a fire extinguisher to detect laser tripwires or shooting out detonating mines. While far from the same level of quality in a first-person shooting experience we can expect from a modern shooter, the first-person mode still added a fresh new layer to the stealth mechanics Metal Gear Solid has been renowned for.
The new tricks that Snake and Raiden had up their sleeves in Sons of Liberty through the boss fights, always one of my favorite aspects of the series (so far) and going even more over-the-top than what Metal Gear Solid had to offer. For the more typical “duck-to-cover and shoot” mechanics of the opening fight with Olga, you get some of MGS2‘s wackier and more memorable boss fights such as my personal favorite of the game, the rooftop fight on Big Shell against Fatman. Let alone his goofy appearance as a rotund bombsuit-wearing fat man on roller skates, the fight against Fatman required all kinds of multi-tasking between seeking out his bombs hidden throughout the encounter while still taking the precious windows of opportunity to hit him when he was vulnerable.
Even with Metal Gear Solid 2 often running into the bizarre and outlandish events that the series has been known for (I can probably just leave it at the infamous “Naked Raiden” scene), its silly moments are countered by a story that has resonance maybe now more than ever. While it’s filled with the over-the-top action sequences that fans have come to expect from Hideo Kojima, its story tackled topics as diverse as they are heavy, weaving its conspiracy story through the lens of politics, existentialism, censorship, and the growth of technology in modern day. While its storytelling has been criticized for its convoluted and complex nature, Metal Gear Solid 2 still spun an engaging tale that was, at the very least, always throwing surprises in my way that only Kojima knows how.
Though I’m coming in to Metal Gear Solid 2 14 years later, it was perhaps the Metal Gear game I was coming in to with the most hesitation given its reputation among fans as one of the weaker installments, though Sons of Liberty still, for the most part, felt like the series I fell in love with when first embarking with Metal Gear Solid a few years back. Where it stands on the mantle next to others is always going to be for debate as one of the more divisive entries in the series, but in my road to The Phantom Pain its story holds a crucial place in understanding where things are headed for Snake, Raiden, and company, even when faced with the pressure of “having to turn the game console off right now.”